Words: Anna Hoghton / Pictures: Remco Merbis
By night Gavin Strange works under the alias of JamFactory, by day, he is a Senior Designer at Aardman Animations – the Academy Award-winning studio behind Wallace & Gromit and Shaun the Sheep. He’s also written the book ‘Do Fly’ and is King of the side project. Gavin has an incredible energy and is never afraid to try something new - whether that’s making a rap music video or taking up contemporary dance classes. His making place is ‘The Den’, a refulgent cubby-hole under the stairs in his home that Harry Potter could only have dreamt of. After insisting we have a cup of tea, Gavin tells us about the friendship that brought him to Bristol, a five-foot tall, pink-and-gold, spray-painted Gromit and what he means by an ‘idealistic realist'.
You’ve been a maker of many different things. How would you describe yourself in one word?
I always say designer. Even though I like to try lots of different things. Everything tends to fall back to graphics and design for me.
What is it that excites you about design?
I’ve always loved the way things look. I remember when I was very young I used to buy this computer game magazine. I could never afford the actual games but I would save all my pocket money for the magazine. For me that was enough because there would always be pictures of the games and a poster. I remember looking at those and feeling an overwhelming positivity and excitement. I loved seeing another world represented in an image. I still see an image or poster and just get this feeling - it’s hard to put into words -but it’s this visceral thrill of seeing beautiful things. I’m not strict with what I like, I appreciate all sorts of aesthetics. Some styles I can do; some I can only dream of doing. But I admire and get inspired by them all.
Are there any places that have inspired you in particular?
Absolutely. One place is Japan, which I've not actually been to, just because so much of their culture is based around character. Even a canteen or a public toilet has a mascot attached so o it feels like fantasy - like a Nintendo world. Everything’s trying to connect with you and have a nice, positive spin and that really appeals to me.
In terms of a place I have been, it has to be Bristol. I love Bristol. It’s full of art and culture and music and all sorts of people, from all walks of life, coming together and co-existing - sometimes beautifully, sometimes not! It’s this interesting melting pot. Just being here is a really big influence for me.
The reason I came to Bristol in the first place was because of an artist called Mr Jago. I loved his work and noticed he didn’t have a website. I emailed him and offered to do a website for free. He said yes, so I came down from Leicester. We had a meeting in Boston Tea Party on Park Street. As soon as I came down to Bristol, I just fell in love with the city because it was green and luscious and had hills. The Midlands are flat - but with hills you get a view. You can see the skyline and things in the distance. That really attracted me.
Mr Jago introduced me to people like RichT and 45RPM and they’ve become close friends too. I’d go over to his flat once a week and we’d have sketch club where we’d all have a bit of lunch and be drawing and painting and making. It was so inspiring. I can’t really see myself ever leaving Bristol. I love the city and everything it represents. And I love this job at Aardman.
How did you start your design journey?
I really wasn’t a kid that was switched on at all. I wasn’t particularly academic or focused and because I’d never excelled before I really thought nothing interesting happened to someone like me. Not that I’d get down about it. It just never occurred to me to think that I’d ever be able to do anything good.
I did a BTec national diploma in graphic design and was very average. It’s a running joke with my friends now that I’ve got this dream job, because back then I was just rubbish. But something clicked in those years: I realised that if I put in a certain amount of effort, I’d get a certain amount back. And, it was like, oh actually, what if I put in THIS much effort, I’ll get THAT much back. It was a slow awakening but on my own terms, which I liked.
After that, I didn't know what I wanted to do but knew I didn’t want to go to University. A local firm in Leicester was looking for a junior designer so I thought I’d give that a go. I was seventeen and I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. I was told the only reason I got the job was because the other guy used up all the creative director's favourite black markers! But it felt amazing - I couldn’t quite believe that I had an actual real job, making things for someone. Back then it was relatively vanilla stuff but I still loved it. I wanted to make them proud and make myself proud. That feeling’s never gone away, and I hope it never will.
How do you approach the projects you do?
We’re all the same. We all worry about what we can and can’t do and where we want to be. We’re all scared to be who we want to and presume good things can’t happen to people like us. But all of us can pursue the things we want to.
I really believe in positivity - bot in a floaty ‘hey let’s all be nice to people’ kind of way but positivity within in the real world. Of course you have to pick your battles and understand how the world works but there is no harm in doing all that with a positive outlook.
I try to be an ‘idealistic realist’: to pursue no holds barred creativity whilst still playing within the constraints of reality. Whether that’s your time, money or who you’re working for. You have to dream but also realise your own limitations. At the moment I can do JamFactory in the evenings and that’s great but next year, when my baby is born, it will be about being a great husband and a great dad. You have to allow those changes to happen.
What is the thing you’ve made that you’re most proud of?
I was heavily involved in a project called Gromit Unleashed here in Bristol. I ended up designing and painting statues of Gromit that were placed around the city and sold at auction for the children’s hospital. I adored the project because the heart of it was all about using art for good. Sometimes design can feel so detached from helping people but it was a reminder that actually design can directly affect how people think and feel. That can be used for bad, sure, but it can also be used for good: it can get people out of the house, get them together as a family - it can make people feel joy.
My first statue was bought by an anonymous couple for twenty-nine thousand pounds, which is a heart exploding amount of money! The best part was that the couple donated the statue back to the children's hospital, where it now lives on the fifth floor. It’s bright pink and gold, you can't miss it! Children who can’t really leave the hospital can go up to there and see this big, bright symbol of something. That was really emotional and really powerful, and something I will never forget. The emotional experiences that come with art and design are what matter.
Do you think all people are creative?
Yes, I think everyone is creative. Sometimes people measure themselves by whether or not they can do something like draw. That’s all semantics. Creativity isn’t about how well you can use a pencil. Creativity is just problem solving and being open to different ways of thinking. People use that in all sorts of jobs, every day. Again being a ‘realistic idealist’, I couldn’t say to a surgeon ‘hey, why don’t you try stitching up your patients differently today’! But I think if more of us tapped into our power to be expressive - whether through music, dancing, painting, whatever - there'd be more joy.
At the minute we’re so focused on everything being measured in a metric. Schools need to hit these results because of X in the future. We seem to be losing the intangible stuff. The stuff that can’t be measured like general happiness and having an outlet for people to express themselves, in their own time, in their own way. We need more focus on that. It would be nice if we had a future where more people felt like they can express their creativity and just gave things a go. I think we’d all be calmer, nicer and a lot more tolerant.
If you were going to give advice to someone who wants to make, what would it be?
Just start. Whatever it is. Start regardless of whether it looks rubbish, feels rubbish or you think you can’t. Those frustrations are all part and parcel. If it was easy the reward wouldn’t feel as sweet. Find things that inspire you and collect them. Build who you are as an individual because that will steer you. But then at the same time it’s totally cool just to change all that and start in a brand new direction.
We make all these decisions about who we are in our early 20s and sometimes it’s almost like we’re scared to go back and reassess that. We are human beings and we’re constantly changing. Everything is. You’ve got to be moveable and malleable. And as long as you’ve got a bit of forward momentum and you keep trying one day you’ll look back and be like wow, how did I get here!
Do you have a creative process?
My process is flexible because I’m always changing with each project. Sometimes I get so angry and frustrated with myself that I’m not better. I call these my 'design grumps'. I’m actually quite a slow creative and I’m rubbish at brainstorms. I can’t just throw out ideas straight away, I have to really let things soak in. I try not to beat myself up, and, again, to be realistic. I would love to be a super fast creative but I’m not. It’s about identifying who you are as an individual and how ideas come to you. Give yourself time and space for those ideas to marinate and try not to throttle yourself in the process!
It’s also ok to be out of your comfort zone. In fact, it's really good! I used to be a dancer and from the age of ten to nineteen I did ballroom and latin - which is, of course what you do when you’re a teenager... then I quit and started skateboarding. But this year, a friend found a contemporary street dance class and I decided to give it a go. I’ve been dancing there for about a year now and I’m awful! Everyone else picks up the choreography quickly but if I can’t do one step it really stumbles me until I’ve done it. I learn in such a different way. I get frustrated at first but give me a few months and I’ll understand the dance better and become comfortable and confident. I’ve realised this is just how I learn and that I need to allow myself that time.
I’m glad I’m still doing things that make me feel uncomfortable because that’s so important. In the creative sector we’re always talking about the need to take risks but that’s nonsense, we’re not jumping out of a building. It’s not life and death. I think we need to change the language and keep perspective. We don’t need to take risks but we do need to allow ourselves to feel uncomfortable. That is how you learn about yourself. Again being realistic, you shouldn’t be uncomfortable all the time - then you’d be on edge! It’s about getting a balance and a rhythm that works for you. And if you need to change everything, change it. It will be hard and frustrating but that’s good. Know that it’s going to be ok.
Tell us about the place you make in.
I call it the Den. It’s not very big, it’s not very glamorous; but it’s me. It’s filled with toys and it’s got lots of pictures and colours. I like being in a nice, warm, bright, familiar environment surrounded by things I’m inspired by, or stuff from the past that I’m really proud of. Whether that is a photograph or a toy. I’ve got some old skateboard VHS tapes that I vividly remember experiencing that feeling of excitement watching.
Sometimes I just sit and stare at these things, not really looking, but then a brushstroke makes me feel something. It’s that feeling of: another human made that and if they made something that makes me feel something then maybe I can make something too. I like being reminded of why I do what I do. It gives me energy.
Of course, at the same time it can feel like a total weight, like I’ll never make anything that good. But I’ve always had that. I would like to think even the biggest artists, graphic designers, filmmakers, still look at other things and feel like that. I hope my heroes have heroes. I hope they are just frustrated, angry, confused creatives like all of us.
What sort of place would you like to make the world?
The answer to that comes from being at Aardman. What I’ve always loved about the company, and what I grew up with, is that they make things that delight people. I remember laughing at Wallace and Gromit, at Creature Comforts, at Shaun the Sheep. This place has got a legacy. I would love to join the ranks of the people here who have contributed to making people feel that sort of delight. I’m not the sort of visionary that wants to capture the pain and the sorrow and suffering of man. I want to make people laugh and feel warm and fuzzy and nice.
Places like Aardman, Studio Ghibli, Pixar - these places work with character, story and heart. They really scrutinise whether a character is doing the right thing; have they got heart and soul? Do we believe them? It’s funny, you walk into a production meeting to all these serious faces and when you take a step back the whole process is about whether this lovely little fictional thing is making someone feel something. It’s honest and genuine in a world all too often filled with deception and that’s such an honour to be part of. If I could even be so lucky as to leave any mark on the world, it would be just to make people smile, and laugh, and feel good and have a nice old time.
They say there are two despairs every artist feels: first, the despair that they can never make anything good, and second, the despair that no-one can. The first despair is ok; it pushes the artist. But the second despair is dangerous - it can stop a maker in their tracks. It strikes me that whilst Gavin experiences a healthy amount of the first sort of despair (in what he playfully describes as his 'design grumps’) the Den is how he shields himself from the second. The tiny space is a treasure trove of colourful toys, keepsakes and trinkets, which Gavin has collected from various artists and projects over the years. Gavin leaps from one object to another, eager to sing the praises of various artists, many of which are friends - something Gavin seems to make easily. On the wall behind him hangs his first Mr Jago painting, a visual reminder of the friendship that brought him to Bristol. Gavin describes with delight how first connections - a random email or crackly Skype call - led to pixel projects, objects, and lasting friendships.
The Spray can
This is one of the spray cans I used to paint the giant five-foot tall, pink and gold statue for the Gromit Unleashed project, which raised £29,000 for the children’s hospital. The statue took hundreds of litres of paint and I went through loads of cans. I really, really love gold and liked how the gold sat on the can after I’d used it. I thought I want to keep this as a memento… The only thing that would make that better is if I could have a signature from Nick himself. So I asked and he surprised me by drawing a lovely Gromit! It’s now a pride of place keepsake.
James Klinge Painting
James is a Scottish artist and a friend of ours. The painting was a wedding gift. We had this before our beloved greyhound Arnie passed away two months ago. James not only painted this photo of Arnie but got it custom mounted and framed. We really miss our boy and it’s so sweet to look up at that. It’s all hand-cut stencils on paper. James is insane. He’ll cut for forty, sixty hours and then he textures over the top. It's amazing.
I actually met him because he emailed me asking if I could do his website. I remember having this broken Skype chat with this fellow with a heavy Glaswegian accent who I was really struggling to hear. Who would have thought that ten years down the line we’re really good mates! It’s funny how digital design has led to these really great friendships and beautiful objects, which is not where you think pixels will go.
This is the best thing I’ve had and I will keep it forever. My nan passed away and when I went to her funeral on a board there were these really nice photographs - actual film photographs, of real people and events. I looked at them and just thought when we have kids no one is going to say: ‘Oh I think Dad had an iPhone 6, let’s try and find a cable that works and download some digital pictures’. So I decided I wanted to start shooting film again. My nan left me a bit of cash and I’d always coveted a Leica. The body is from ‘92 and the lens if from ‘56.
I hope my son will have it when I’m dead and gone. If I had to save anything in a fire, apart from my wife, it would be the Leica… and my Kaws Toy… and my Mr Jago painting, and… basically everything I've just been talking to you about as well. I’d probably be back hauling out that massive droplet statue over in that corner, the firemen won’t know what to do with me!
Remco Merbis, founder (1999) and creative director of visual storytelling agency Pixillion.